1839-60: The Opium Wars (England v. China)

China’s Tragic Encounter with Europe

In the end of eighteenth century, the merchants of several European countries began to take a strong interest in direct trade with China. There was a high demand in western Europe for certain Chinese products, especially tea, porcelain, and silk. A major economic concern for the Europeans trading with China was the lack of European products that Chinese were willing to purchase in profitable quantities.

Tea already sparked a dramatic dispute with American colonies in the late 18th Century when  the British imposed a tax on tea in the North American colonies, which was bitterly resented by the colonists. The British Parliament gave special permission to British East India Company to ship tea directly to America from India. The price of tea plummeted. But the anti-British feeling  led to the Boston Tea Party and eventually to the American war of Independence! When America eventually won its independence from British rule in 1783, it began its own free and independent tea trade with China.

Tea v. opium

The Chinese have consumed tea for thousands of years. Tea first appeared publicly in England during the 1650s, where it was introduced through coffee houses. From there it was introduced to British colonies in America and elsewhere. By 1750-1800 tea would be the national drink!

Note: The British Empire spread its own interpretation of tea to its dominions and colonies including regions that today comprise the states of India, Hong Kong, and Pakistan which had existing tea customs, as well as, regions such as East Africa, which did not have existing tea customs.

The Qing Emperor of China decreed that “China was the center of the world and had everything they could ever need, so all trade with foreigners must be paid for in Silver!”

As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for imports of tea from China, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. In 1773 the British East India Company created  a British monopoly on opium buying in Bengal. This trade of opium, was technically illegal since it was outlawed by the Qing dynasty. Opium had long been a medicinal drug in China, but the British merchants supplied it for recreational use.  (We should keep in mind that in the 1800s, the recreational use of opium was perfectly legal in Britain). As the opium trade was illegal in China, Company ships could not carry opium to China. So the opium produced in Bengal was sold in Calcutta on condition that it be sent to China. 

British and United States merchants brought opium from the British East India Company’s factories to the coast of China, where they sold it to Chinese smugglers who distributed the drug in defiance of Chinese laws. With the British government cancellation of the trade monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company, cheap opium flooded the market. By 1825, most of the money needed to buy tea in China was raised by the illegal opium trade.

More Chinese became addicted, the demand for opium grew. As the habit of smoking opium spread to ninety per cent of all Chinese males in the country’s coastal regions, business activity was much reduced, the civil service ground to a halt, and the standard of living fell.

The official sent in 1838 by the Emperor Dao guang of the Qing Dynasty, concluded, “If we continue to allow this trade to flourish, in a few dozen years we will find ourselves not only with no soldiers to resist the enemy, but also with no money to equip the army“. Aware both of the growing numbers of addicts and the drain of silver (money), the Emperor demanded action.  In 1838, the Emperor forced the merchants to surrender their opium to be destroyed and banned the drug for all but medicinal uses.

These disputes over trade and diplomatic relations between China under the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire led to the Opium Wars, also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars.

First Opium War (1839 – 1842)

In response, the British government sent expeditionary forces from India which ravaged the Chinese coast and dictated the terms of settlement.

The Treaty of Nanking (1842) not only opened the way for further opium trade, including the seizure by Britain of the island of  Hong Kong, as well as diplomatic representation. Finally, and perhaps most important to China’s loss of nationhood, they accepted the principle of “extraterritoriality,” whereby Western merchants were no longer accountable to China’s laws, but rather to those of their mother countries. The U.S. government, and the governments of many European countries, signed similar treaties with China shortly afterward. The stage was set for the partition of the world’s most populous nation by the numerically inferior but technologically superior Western powers.

The Qing dynasty went back to business as usual, or what it thought was business as usual, and soon began to resist implementation of some parts of the treaty.

Second Opium War (1856 – 1860).

A new emperor came to the throne in 1850 who was thoroughly xenophobic and contemptuous of the British.

Later, the British demanded that China open all her ports to foreign trade, legalise the importation of opium from British possessions in India and Burma, exempt British goods from all import duties, and permit the establishment of a full embassy in Beijing. When the court still refused to accept foreign ambassadors and obstructed the trade clauses of the treaties, disputes led to the Second Opium War, in which China suffered terrible defeats at the hands of combined Anglo-French land and sea forces. An Anglo-French force eventually took over Beijing.


After the defeat of China in the opium wars, Europeans obtained concessions, districts in port cities where European administration and law applied. France, Russia, the United States, and Great Britain then forced China to agree to open eleven more major ports to Western trade. When the Chinese once again proved slow to enact the terms of the treaty, Britain ordered  to shell the Chinese ports. The Chinese capitulated, permitting all foreigners with passports to travel freely in China, and granting Chinese who converted to Christianity full property rights. Major powers like Japan, Germany, Russia and the US as well as minor players like Italy, Belgium and Austria-Hungary also had concessions. Shanghai was the largest concession port created around 1850.

Tea: from China to India

The problem for the British was that all the tea in the world came from China, and Britain couldn’t control the quality or the price. So around 1850, the East India Trading Company set out to create a tea industry in a place they did control: India. Then they asked a botanist Robert Fortune to return to China, to smuggle tea out of the country… Commercial production of tea in India began with the British East India Company, at which point large tracts of land were converted for mass tea production. This marked a shift in English sources for tea, from foreign merchants in China to British plantations in India.

Spheres of influence

But in 1894, the Qing dynasty went to war with Japan. Most European commentators predicted a Chinese victory. However, Japan was everywhere victorious. The first Sino-Japanese War marked the emergence of Japan as a major world military power. It also exposed the Qing dynasty’s extreme weakness. Fearing the Qing dynasty would soon collapse and China would descend into anarchy, Britain, France, Russia, and Germany began dividing coastal China into what were euphemistically called “spheres of influence,” that is, areas of China under the de facto control of one of these European countries. By the turn of the century, large parts of China were virtual colonies. The sign “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed” posted at the British-controlled municipal park in Shanghai was a crude yet eloquent statement of the balance of power at the time.

A “Century of humiliation”

These treaties, soon followed by similar arrangements with the United States and France, later became known as the Unequal Treaties and the Opium Wars as the start of China’s “Century of humiliation”.

Century of humiliation: Its beginning is usually dated  on the eve of the First Opium War and the widespread addiction and political unraveling of China that followed. In this period, China lost all the wars it fought and had to give major concessions to the great powers in the subsequent treaties. It is generally considered to have ended with the expulsion of foreign powers from mainland China after World War II, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

What had begun as a conflict of interests between English desire for profits from the trade in silk, porcelain, and tea and the Confucian ideal of self-sufficiency and exclusion of corrupting influences resulted in the partitioning of China by the Western powers, and the traditional values of an entire culture undermined by Christian missionaries and rampant trading in Turkish and Indian opium.

China’s humiliation led directly to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty and the social upheavals that precipitated the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. No wonder the Boxer rebels’ chief goal was to purify and reinvigorate their nation by the utter annihilation of all “foreign devils.” The main reason the dynasty did not fall  then was the lack of any effective, organized opposition. It was not until 1911 that an internal revolution began that had sufficient force to overthrow the dynasty. As a result, in 1912 China became a republic. The end of the imperial age, however, did not mean an end to China’s old problems. The first half of the twentieth century was a turbulent and sanguinary period for China and its people.

About Yves Messer

Yes Messer is 3A: artist, activist and author.
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